A healthy mind needs a healthy body

Despite the new primary / secondary curriculums leaving out dance, drama and other key artforms (although this is now being rethought after the uprising against this decision), there has nevertheless been a resurgence in dance in early years settings.

This is partly because of the increasing recognition of the vital learning dispositions developed through movement and dance, coupled with its relevance to many areas of learning right across the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum.

Early years teachers and practitioners are as likely to incorporate dance or movement into sessions focussing on maths, physical development and sensory development as they are into expressive arts and design.

For instance, consider a child moving inside a cardboard box. They are developing spatial awareness, checking out how big they are in relation to the box where they can reach all the sides, rather than how small they are compared to most other humans, furniture and buildings around them at this stage. They can crawl in, over, around and under the box and discover how it bends and flexes to their will. This type of movement with this type of object is very empowering for a small child.

They develop a body sensory awareness, realising that they can hear the sound of the box being scratched, see its sides up close and personal, smell its boxy smell, and taste the cardboard. They do all these things, and make their own sensory discoveries, using their own body. At the same time they are building cognitive skills, working out how the box works, and what its potential for all sorts of uses is (den, castle, bridge, garage, house, rabbit warren, bed, etc); motor skills as they try to open, close and fold the flaps; mathematical skills as they work out the size and shape of the space in relation to their bodies or the other things they bring into the box; and creative skills as they use the blank canvas of the box to draw their own ideas on, or simply express their movement in marks.

All of these start with the movement of the child in and around this object, which then gives rise to so many areas of learning and discovery.

The myriad patterns and rhythms of learning as the child plays with the box reflect the myriad patterns of the connections happening in the brain. This is the fundamental reason why it is so important for us not to work in subject areas, but holistically and heuristically (experientially) with children of this age and stage, because everything is linked to each other.


As a baby is born with 70% of the mass of their brain in place, and trillions of synaptic connectors and neurons waiting to be fired and given meaning, all of which link up to make sense of each action, word or sensory experience for that child. This is because the synapses that are predisposed to movement, for instance, are located in several different parts of the brain and fire at different times depending on the experience, environment or focus that stimulates and triggers the child’s brain at that particular moment.

So, if we took the box example above, the child will at one point be forming synaptic connections based on physical growth in one second, cognitive growth the next, and sensory growth the next – sometimes all at the same time. They are all connected, and it’s so important that we incorporate movement into every day practice with our children, in every way possible, in order to strengthen their synapses right across the brain, not just in the area predisposed to ‘pure’ movement itself.

By the age of around three, the brain starts to refine the growth and prunes the synapses that are being underused. By late adolescence, this pruning process has reached its optimum and the brain is reduced down to around a third of the synapses the child was born with. Therefore, if that child has never been introduced to a movement friendly environment, it will become much harder – although not impossible – later on in life to enable these vital functions in their brains to operate to their full potential.

The best teachers and practitioners already know this, either by training or by experience, and are turning their settings into movement friendly environments. It particularly helps children whose genetic predispositions drive them to focus more developing the physical aspects of their brains and bodies first – which often, but not always, includes boys.

This is also recognised by the best paediatricians, neuroscientists, educationalists, social pedagogists, health visitors, and so on, because a healthy mind is so dependent on a healthy body, and the foundations for this all stem from those first three years. Fingers crossed that our politicians and curriculum writers will so realise how important this is in the near future!

But the people who know this the best are, of course, children themselves, who want to run, crawl, wriggle, dance, slither and fly their way through their early years. There’s a reason for this, and that’s because it is so right for them to do this that they know innately what and how to do it, as long as we provide the stimulus, environment and support to enable their movement to thrive.

What other resources do you use to get your children’s bodies and brains moving together?

Author Ruth Churchill Dower is the Director of Earlyarts